Dark Horse

Dark Horse


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The film’s title bursts onto the screen in sparkly Seventies style lettering and some thumping R n B blasts into your ears – yes, it’s another Todd Solondz film.

Shome mishtake, shurely? The relentlessly low-key, dark-hearted chronicler of the American Inadequate delivering an upbeat movie? Well, not quite – the music soundtracks a glorious tracking shot of seriously bad ‘dad dancing’ at a Jewish wedding in suburban New Jersey, which brakes to a halt at a table occupied only by Abe (Jordan Gelber) and Miranda (Selma Blair).

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Declaring that dancing “isn’t my thing” he attempts to ignite a conversation with an excruciating lack of success that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Happiness, Palindromes or, indeed, any of Solondz’s forensic studies of social embarrassment. Despite the paucity of evidence, he thinks he’s in with a chance and manages to get her phone number, embarking on a hesitant but heartfelt courtship.

It quickly becomes apparent that the two are far from the happiest bunnies in the forest. Abe is an overweight underachiever, doing an unfulfilling job badly at the real estate development firm run by his dad (Christopher Walken) and spending his social life ordering toys online and playing backgammon with his mum (Mia Farrow). Miranda also lives with her parents, having moved back from the big city due to unspecified “problems”, and is obviously medicated and depressed.

Typical Solondz protagonists, then, and despite the relative lack of controversial subject matter this time around (Happiness included rape, paedophilia and a central character who makes obscene phone calls) the film’s focus is once again squarely on the dark secrets behind the sterilised, civilised veneer of middle-class America and the attempts by not particularly likeable or sympathetic characters to find a modicum of contentment. Despite initially being reluctant to the point of rudeness, Miranda accepts Abe’s almost immediate marriage proposal with surprising ease. But a revelation about her past casts a dark cloud on their plans for the future...

The plot’s undoubtedly secondary to the characters, and once again Solondz has drawn a gallery of very recognisable and very flawed human beings, which his actors bring to life with pitch-perfect performances. Gelber, a stalwart supporting player and TV regular, brings depth and pathos to a character who could simply be an irritating man-child. Abe sees himself as the “dark horse” of the title, an under-appreciated less-favoured child who’ll escape from the shadow of his parents and his more successful brother (a brief but telling turn from the Hangover’s Justin Bartha) just as soon as... but in reality he’s a permanent adolescent who’s quite content to stay in the family nest, and his floundering attempts to break the cycle are poignantly observed.

Miranda isn’t really the ideal person to help him, but Blair (a Solondz veteran) also finds the humanity and secret hurt in a mercurial and somewhat manipulative personality. Walken and Farrow bring their customary class to the party – the former buttoned up and bewildered by his son’s lack of ambition and respect, the latter passive and smothering but genuinely concerned that her baby will simply never engage with the world.

As always, Solondz has a keen eye for the dreary landscapes of US suburbia, a world of identikit houses, stifling offices and sterile malls. There’s less innovation than in his previous work (Palindromes had the same character played by 10 actors of different ages, races and genres), though a series of fantasy scenes yield some of the film’s best comic moments, as when Abe imagines his homely, motherly secretary (Donna Murphy) as an ice-cool cougar alternately seducing and belittling him.

In the past, I’ve never been quite sure whether Solondz genuinely empathised with his characters or simply regarded them and the society that created them with an exasperated, secretly-puritanical contempt. But here there seems genuine warmth and affection on display, though you’ll be unsurprised to learn that the climax isn’t exactly a touchy-feely Richard Curtis upliftathon.

Long-term Solondz fans may find the relative lack of uncomfortable issue-confronting or stylistic experimentation a disappointment. And it has to be said that Jewish-American neuroses aren’t exactly uncharted cinematic territory – a certain Mr Allen springs to mind. But there’s enough black comedy and unexpected warmth on display to make it a perfect date movie for anyone who’s ever thought of themselves as a bit of a misfit – and haven’t we all thought that, now and again?

Reviewed on: 04 Oct 2011
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Todd Solondz draws dark comedy from the story of two dysfunctional thirtysomethings planning to marry.
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Director: Todd Solondz

Writer: Todd Solondz

Starring: Jordan Gelber, Selma Blair, Mia Farrow, Christopher Walken, Donna Murphy

Year: 2011

Runtime: 84 minutes

Country: USA


London 2011

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